Homeless student rate soars

Hard Times in High Country

A stunning 25 percent of Payson students are considered “homeless” by the school district, one of the highest rates in the state.

The share of students living in unstable households, with relatives or in campgrounds and cars has jumped 10 percent in the past two years.

“What’s particularly sobering is the comparison of our homeless numbers with districts many times our overall population — and not just affluent districts, but poor urban ones,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

Only a small percentage of those roughly 600 students have no place to live at all. The great majority live with friends or relatives besides their parents — or live with their parents in the homes of other families and relatives. That would include children living with grandparents.

Studies show that sometimes such chaotic and unstable living arrangements have a big impact on student achievement and success in school. Moreover, the inexorable rise in the

figures reflects the financial and emotional stress affecting a huge share of the young families in town.

Each year, O’Brien receives a list of the number of homeless students in kindergarten through 12th grade across the state from the Arizona Department of Education’s department on Homeless and Refugee Education.

The percentage of homeless students in the district has more than doubled in the past four years, leaving the district struggling to cope with one of the highest rates in the state.

O’Brien pointed to the Roosevelt and Glendale schools in the Phoenix area for comparison.

The Roosevelt district sits in south Phoenix with a demographic mix of minorities and lower-income residents. The district has 11,000 students, 12 percent of them homeless. That’s half of Payson’s rate.

The 13,000-student Glendale district has the same sort of demographic mix as Roosevelt, but only 5 percent of its students are defined as homeless. Payson’s rate is five times as high.

Payson also fares poorly when compared to other rural school districts, including Blue Ridge and Show Low.

The Show Low district and Blue Ridge district in Lakeside both have roughly the same enrollment as Payson but only 5 to 6 percent of their students meet the definition for homeless.

The Federal McKinney-Vento Act defines a homeless student as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The definition also includes children who share housing, live in motels, trailer parks, campgrounds, emergency transitional housing, or are waiting for foster care placement.

Examples of non-fixed housing include living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or under migrant circumstances.

O’Brien said the Payson district receives a federal grant of $13,000 to aid homeless students with their clothing and school supply needs.

The McKinney-Vento Act passed in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation. The act states homeless students have the right to attend the school they attended prior to becoming homeless. They have the right to transportation and to participate in school programs regardless if they have an address.

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